Apr 29, 2022

Soft Shell Crabbing: A Labor of Love

The Tireless Process of Harvesting Softshells

Soft shell crabs are considered a delicacy to locals and visitors alike on the Outer Banks. Deep-fried or sautéed, they are a tasty treat to feast on in late spring, just before the summer season is in full swing. Behind the scenes, local crabbers and their families work around the clock on the tedious process of harvesting softshell crabs.

from boat

Outer Banks crabbers strive for perfect timing when harvesting soft shell crabs. The process begins on a boat in the sound in the early morning hours, prior to sunrise. Crabbers check previously set crab pots and collect any blue crabs that took the bait and ventured inside the trap. Hundreds of crab pots can be checked within just a few hours. 

Back on land, the crabs are placed into shedding tanks, or shedders. Shedding tanks are shallow, with water constantly flowing to emulate the crab’s natural environment. Molting crabs are sorted in the shedding tanks according to where they are in the shedding process. When the crab emerges from its hard outer shell the new shell underneath is completely soft. The shell will harden within a few hours, so it’s essential that the softshell crab is removed from the tank immediately.

During softshell crab season, crabbing is a family business in many cases on the Outer Banks. Since the shedding tanks must be monitored around the clock, many local crabbers’ families are fully involved with each year’s softshell crab harvest. Benny O’Neal, of O’Neal’s Sea Harvest, says that crabbers depend on the help of family members during soft shell season. From middle-of-the-night shedding tank checks to early morning trips out into the sound to packing the crabs to be sold at local seafood markets, softshell crabbing is difficult work. Though it’s hard work, as Murray Bridges of Endurance Seafood says, he enjoys being involved in the entire soft shell crab harvesting process, from beginning to end.

softshell shedders

What is a soft shell crab?

A soft shell crab is a blue crab that is molting. The crab molts as part of its growth process. Molting can take place year-round, depending on where the crab is in its growth cycle. Water temperature and other conditions determine when the crab molts.

When is soft shell crab season? 

Late spring is commonly referred to as “softshell season” due to the massive amount of crabs that molt when the water begins to warm. Folklore says that soft shell crab season starts during the first full moon in May, but the season officially starts and ends when conditions are right for molting. When the water begins to warm up in the spring, blue crabs will begin to molt en masse. The blue crab molting timeframe on the Outer Banks generally runs from late April through mid-June. During this time, molting crabs must be monitored at all hours of the day.

soft shell crab shedding tank
Blue crab facts

How do you eat softshell crabs and how do they taste?

The most popular preparation of soft shell crabs is breading and deep-frying them. However, sautéing and grilling are also common. The Spider Roll on the menu at many sushi restaurants features a fried soft shell crab. Many restaurants on the Outer Banks feature softshell crabs on their menus, as an entree centerpiece or on a sandwich.

For those that love to pick blue crabs and enjoy their meat, a softshell crab is a tasty treat. Deep frying soft shell crabs gives them a crunchy crust which gives way to the buttery soft meat inside, which is salty and sweet. Eating a fried softshell is a truly spectacular culinary experience! 

soft crab BLT

Where can you get soft shell crabs on the Outer Banks?

It’s a toss-up on which local OBX seafood restaurant has the best soft shell crab entree. O’Neal’s Sea Harvest, located on the seafood docks in Wanchese, has a delicious Soft Crab BLT on their lunch menu that’s worth the drive. A wide selection of fresh seafood is also available to purchase and take back to your vacation home to cook. A trip to O’Neals Sea Harvest truly gives you a boat-to-table view of Outer Banks Seafood. 

Murray Bridges of Endurance Seafood sadly passed away in August of 2023. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to interview him and document a day of his work during soft shell season. He will forever be known as the Crab Father. 

Courtney Wisecarver

Courtney Wisecarver

Apr 29, 2022

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